Monday, April 25, 2011

The Royal Wedding

When I hear reference to the “royal wedding,” it evokes memories of Africa. These memories, however, aren’t of round huts, friendly people and the sounds of exotic drumming. These memories are of being crammed into a house with 116 other people for eight days, of artillery too close for comfort, of wondering if we would see our families again.

In 1981, when my husband Bruce and I were in The Gambia with the Peace Corps, we happened to be in the capital city, Banjul, 250 miles downriver from Mansajang, the village where we lived. On the day we were scheduled to return home, a coup d’etat instigated by The Gambia Field Force (similar to our National Guard) broke out. All roads leading out of town were closed. Radio Gambia and the airport were taken over by the rebels.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers appeared in the streets. Obviously, we had to find safe shelter. Not knowing just what was policy–we’d never been instructed about what to do in the event of a coup–we ended up at the residence of Tom Mosier, local head of U.S. AID to ask for his guidance.

As we approached Mosier’s home, Tom came out, his normally cheerful face in a worried frown. I’d never seen anyone actually wring his hands before, but that’s exactly what Tom was doing. Now we were worried.

“Tom, what is it?” Bruce asked.

“We’re in a lot of trouble here. The Ambassador is ‘detailed’ at the Embassy. The Embassy radio is out for repair so we don’t have contact with Washington. We don’t even have contact with the Ambassador.”

Bruce looked surprised. “I can’t imagine the Ambassador doesn’t have a radio at his house.”

“Oh, he does. But it’s not assembled and no one knows how to put it together.”

“Tom, I can put a radio together. I’m a licensed radio operator.”

Tom’s eyes lit up. “Come with me, both of you.”

At the Ambassador’s house, not far from Tom Mosier’s, Bruce set up two radios, a short-distance radio with which he could talk to Ambassador Piper at the US Embassy in the capital city of Banjul, and the British Commissioner, just down the street. The other, a medium-range radio could reach Dakar, Senegal. Since the Ambassador currently had no medium-range radio at the Embassy, he sent messages through Bruce who then relayed messages via the medium range radio to the US Embassy in Dakar, who in turn relayed them on to Washington.

Bruce manned the radio about eighteen hours a day, playing a vital role in establishing and maintaining communication. For several hours during the night, atmospheric conditions prevented radio transmission, allowing Bruce time to rest.

We remained at the Ambassador’s for the next eight days. Within two days we had 118 people crammed into the house, Americans, Germans, Swedish, Indians, people from many different agencies and businesses, including about 20 of the 52 in-country Peace Corps volunteers and staff. Although it was the Ambassador’s residence, it wasn’t a particularly large or grand house and only had 3 bedrooms.

From the start, food and water was an issue. At our twice daily meetings, we decided the adults would eat two small meals a day, but the 17 children among us would have three meals a day. No one wanted to listen to hungry, whiny kids!

Much of the fighting took place a short distance from where we were. One of the President’s wives and seven of their children were being held hostage by rebels only a mile from us.

During daylight hours, we frequently heard artillery, rifle and machine gun fire. We dismantled the beds and placed mattresses over the windows for protection from flying glass. At times the fighting was so close we hunkered down under tables for safety.

Peace Corps takes a neutral position on politics. We were told that if we stayed inside we’d be safe. We had no choice but to trust that this would be true. We flew the American flag above the house day and night. Both rebels and loyalists entered the house to check on us and to assure us of our safety.

So what does the royal wedding have to do with all this? The President of The Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara, was out of the country, attending Prince Charles and Diane’s wedding in England. The Field Force took advantage of his absence to stage the coup.

After eight days, with the military aid of neighboring Senegal, the coup was put down. It’s difficult to get a definitive count in The Gambia, but it is estimated about 1,000 people were killed in the skirmishes. Everyone at the Ambassador’s residence remained safe, though a little thinner because of the slim food rations. We Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated to Senegal until things calmed down enough for us to return upriver to our villages.

I am currently writing my memoirs about our two years in Africa. The working title of the book is “Tubob.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review: Donna Rose and the Roots of Evil

Donna Rose has done it again. She and her sidekick, Cyrus, find themselves involved in solving the murder of Police Chief William Donniker.

Donna and Cyrus’s involvement with mysteries isn’t new, but it’s nothing they seek out, either. They simply find themselves in situations where they seem to be the only ones in a position to get to the truth.

In the Chief’s case, it’s hard to find someone who really likes him. Lots of people have reason to hate him. But murdering a Chief of Police?

Donna and Cyrus have a strong incentive to solve the mystery. Their friend Jake, a contender for Police Chief, has been arrested for the murder.

Donna Rose and the Roots of Evil is a "cozy" mystery involving a retired school teacher and her dapper neighbor, Cyrus, a retired Navy man.

Cozy mysteries are becoming an immensely popular genre, especially when they become a series. What is a cozy mystery? It’s normally a crime that contains very little sex, violence or coarse language. By the end of the story the mystery has a satisfactory conclusion. The protagonist is often a well-educated woman, someone whom you would like to have as a neighbor. The story-line often takes place in a small picturesque town, such as Cedar Harbor, a make-believe town in the state of Washington.

Donna Rose and the Roots of Evil is the second of Norma Tadlock Johnson’s Cedar Harbor Mysteries, the first being Donna Rose and the Slug War and the third is Hazards of the Game. Johnson has found the key to keeping interest high.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Greener Grass on the Other Side of the Fence

It may surprise you, but many common lawn care practices are actually harmful. Here are some common lawn care myths:

To keep grass healthy, it should be watered daily. Wrong! A light daily watering encourages a shallow root system which will eventually weaken the turf. Instead, water deeply and infrequently. The idea is to water the roots, not the grass blades.

To keep a trim-looking lawn, mow the grass short. Wrong, again. The shaved look is great for the golf course, but for most home lawns, grass cut higher will develop deeper roots and will stay greener and healthier during hot, dry summer months.

Grass clippings are harmful to your lawn. Not so. Grass clippings contain moderately high levels of nutrients and when recycled provide a good source of fertilizer. Excessive clippings, however, should be removed to prevent smothering. Newer type mulching mowers chop the leaf blades into finer pieces for more rapid breakdown.

Lawn Mowers:A sharp mower will keep a lawn looking neat and well clipped. Dull mowers can cause irregular, chewed off grass blades, giving the lawn a ragged look. The type of mower you use, reel or rotary, isn't as important as adjusting it to the right height and keeping the blades sharp.

Aerating Your Lawn:If your lawn is heavily used or planted on hard soil, aerating your lawn will loosen the soil and allow water to penetrate to the roots. If your lawn is large, you may want to rent a tool that will spike the turf. Our hand-operated aerator has two ejector tubes that we step on to make the holes. We do this every three months.

What is Thatch?Some lawns, especially one that has been neglected, might develop thatch. Thatch is plant debris that hasn't yet decomposed. A little thatch is good for your lawn because it helps to retain moisture. Look closely at the base of the grass. If you see ½ inch or more of organic matter surrounding the blades, your lawn has too much thatch. If you have a serious thatch build-up, you can rent a dethatcher. To prevent thatch, mow your lawn on a regular basis. Lawn clippings rarely contribute to excessive thatch.

Food For Your Lawn:Most commercial lawn fertilizers are balanced for different kinds of growth. The ratios for these fertilizers are indicated on the package in numbers such as 5-10-5 or 28-3-4.

The first figure indicates nitrogen, which makes the grass grow up, green and thick. The second figure indicates phosphorus, which makes the grass grow down to the root system. The third figure indicates potash, which makes the grass grow vigorously and helps keep it healthy and hardy.

Insects and Diseases:If your lawn has developed a problem with insect pests or diseases, it might be a good idea to study a garden book for pictures of grass patches resembling your problem and follow the book's suggestions. Many garden supply stores have a large garden book for their customers' use with illustrations and suggestions for treating pests and diseases.
Insect and disease problems will diminish with good lawn management practices such as proper watering and mowing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review: The Daughter's Walk

The Daughter’s Walk (Waterbrook Press) by Jane Kirkpatrick is yet another example of Kirkpatrick’s mastery as a storyteller. Kirkpatrick, a recipient of many prestigious literary awards, is known for her meticulous attention to detail and superb characterization. She is the author of 20 books, 17 of which are historical novels. Kirkpatrick speaks with authority in her western-based books, having homesteaded with her husband on a remote ranch in Eastern Oregon.

A historical novel, The Daughter’s Walk begins in 1896. Helga Estby accepts a challenge to walk 3,500 miles from Spokane, Washington to New York City. Helga insists that her daughter Clara accompany her. Sponsored by the fashion industry, the trek is to be accomplished within seven months and will be rewarded the sum of $10,000, money that could save the family farm. The walk is intended to promote a new dress fashion and also to prove that women have stamina.

The story is told by the daughter, Clara, who is against the walk from the onset. She doesn’t share her mother’s sense of adventure and feels the plan dangerous, humiliating and foolish. Helga’s husband strongly disapproves of the venture, considering it irrational and irresponsible. The family has many children and the burden of keeping house is left to the older girls, leaving them afraid and resentful.

Helga has her own reasons for accepting this challenge, among them saving Clara from what she believes would be a terrible mistake. As the story unfolds, Clara learns things about her mother that affect her own existence and place in the family.

The trek is even more arduous than either expect. Hardships and disappointments abound. Things have not gone well on the home front either, and when they eventually return both Clara and her mother find their lives irrevocably changed.

Clara’s life journey continues. She finds the consequences of the walk have defined her, in both positive and negative ways.

The Daughter’s Walk is a fascinating study of the era and its people, particularly the Norwegian community and sense of family. Kirkpatrick’s thorough research and extraordinary writing has brought to life this true story that changed the lives of so many.